All the world’s a stage

Graeme Nicoll created an economical solution for the Unity production's stage design

Graeme Nicoll created an economical solution for the Unity production's stage design

IN MINIATURE: Graeme Nicoll, stage designer for Unity Theatre’s upcoming production of The Shadow Box, first made a scale drawing of his concept then a sketch model, also to scale. Lighting technician Colin Olsen will help bring the set to life with a lighting design that helps isolate each of the three “cottages” onstage. Picture by Liam Clayton

Three cottages are called for in Michael Cristofer’s play The Shadow Box, but Unity Theatre’s intimate space means a simplified but cohesive stage design solution is called for.

Stage directions ask for three separate hospice cottages for three terminally ill people who will live out their final days there.

The play also features an interviewer who represents the hospice facility and is initially heard offstage. The interviewer acts as a tool for each of the patients and their families to relay their feelings about their situation.

Later in the play the interviewer, played by Arran Dunn, continues his work onstage.

With 45 years of architectural practice and design behind him, as well as the joinery skills he was brought up with, plus painting experience, Graeme Nicoll has created an economical solution for the Unity production’s stage design.

The play centres on three different families with three different relationships, says Nicoll.

“Because of the theatre’s limited space we had to deal with the play’s requirements in a different way and that was to create levels.”

The design differs from what Unity usually works with, says lighting designer Colin Olsen.

“In the past we have done minimalistic set designs. The interesting thing here is the different levels.”

The four levels provide three stage areas while the floor in front of the built stage will represent a paved patio. Variation in floor levels and wall heights in the set suggest three separate cottages.

Nicoll got a sense of the play at the cast’s first reading. Director Elizabeth Boyce, Nicoll and Olsen decided on a fixed stage area rather than a design that required onstage changes to the set during the show.

Nicoll first drew a small technical drawing of his design concept.

Draughted freehand but to scale — a skill that comes naturally to Nicoll after half a century in architectural design — the drawing is made up of a plan (bird’s- eye) view and an axonometric view.

An axonometric drawing projects a 3D view that does not involve a vanishing point but uses the same overall scale for the height, width, and depth of the design.

Each cottage area in the drawing is coloured to give the actors a better sense of how the parts of the design are separate but flow together.

Nicoll also created a small sketch model of the design. This shows off the angled walls and other variations.

“Through the drawing and the model people could understand the set before it was built,” says the stage designer.

“The actors got a sense of what was going on five weeks out from the opening of the show.”

Although angled walls and varied stage floor shapes mean there is more construction in the set than usual, the design is largely fitted around the dimensions of the theatre’s flats.

Short for scenery flat, a flat is a simple freestanding component that can be painted and positioned on stage to create walls, give the appearance of buildings or other backgrounds. The design also works with the dimensions of the theatre’s rostrum — big, rectangular boxes — that make up the elevated stage floor.

“We’ve kept ‘specials’ — specially built sections — to a minimum,” says Olsen. One special will not even be seen by the audience.

Julie McPhail’s character Felicity is wheelchair-bound. The design needed to include a ramp to move Felicity from one physical level to another. The ramp doesn’t feature in the stage directions, and isn’t even seen by the audience. It was an “invisible” detail in need of a pragmatic solution.

With limited access from the changing room to the stage, a compact “corridor” runs behind flats that make up the back wall of the set.

Because elements of the design were in place early during the rehearsal season, actors had the advantage of working with it long before the curtain goes up. And then it’s all about the play.

The Shadow Box talks about death and dying as not a scary thing, Boyce told The Guide last month.

“It asks ‘what’s your life about?’ Not ‘what’s your death about?’ It’s about living in the now and experiencing relationships in the now. It asks the question ‘who are you? What makes you? What makes a person a person?’”

The stage is not what people go to a show to see, says Nicoll.

“The design is not about the set, it’s about the acting. The set creates an ambience, a nuance, to enhance the actors’ performance.”

Three cottages are called for in Michael Cristofer’s play The Shadow Box, but Unity Theatre’s intimate space means a simplified but cohesive stage design solution is called for.

Stage directions ask for three separate hospice cottages for three terminally ill people who will live out their final days there.

The play also features an interviewer who represents the hospice facility and is initially heard offstage. The interviewer acts as a tool for each of the patients and their families to relay their feelings about their situation.

Later in the play the interviewer, played by Arran Dunn, continues his work onstage.

With 45 years of architectural practice and design behind him, as well as the joinery skills he was brought up with, plus painting experience, Graeme Nicoll has created an economical solution for the Unity production’s stage design.

The play centres on three different families with three different relationships, says Nicoll.

“Because of the theatre’s limited space we had to deal with the play’s requirements in a different way and that was to create levels.”

The design differs from what Unity usually works with, says lighting designer Colin Olsen.

“In the past we have done minimalistic set designs. The interesting thing here is the different levels.”

The four levels provide three stage areas while the floor in front of the built stage will represent a paved patio. Variation in floor levels and wall heights in the set suggest three separate cottages.

Nicoll got a sense of the play at the cast’s first reading. Director Elizabeth Boyce, Nicoll and Olsen decided on a fixed stage area rather than a design that required onstage changes to the set during the show.

Nicoll first drew a small technical drawing of his design concept.

Draughted freehand but to scale — a skill that comes naturally to Nicoll after half a century in architectural design — the drawing is made up of a plan (bird’s- eye) view and an axonometric view.

An axonometric drawing projects a 3D view that does not involve a vanishing point but uses the same overall scale for the height, width, and depth of the design.

Each cottage area in the drawing is coloured to give the actors a better sense of how the parts of the design are separate but flow together.

Nicoll also created a small sketch model of the design. This shows off the angled walls and other variations.

“Through the drawing and the model people could understand the set before it was built,” says the stage designer.

“The actors got a sense of what was going on five weeks out from the opening of the show.”

Although angled walls and varied stage floor shapes mean there is more construction in the set than usual, the design is largely fitted around the dimensions of the theatre’s flats.

Short for scenery flat, a flat is a simple freestanding component that can be painted and positioned on stage to create walls, give the appearance of buildings or other backgrounds. The design also works with the dimensions of the theatre’s rostrum — big, rectangular boxes — that make up the elevated stage floor.

“We’ve kept ‘specials’ — specially built sections — to a minimum,” says Olsen. One special will not even be seen by the audience.

Julie McPhail’s character Felicity is wheelchair-bound. The design needed to include a ramp to move Felicity from one physical level to another. The ramp doesn’t feature in the stage directions, and isn’t even seen by the audience. It was an “invisible” detail in need of a pragmatic solution.

With limited access from the changing room to the stage, a compact “corridor” runs behind flats that make up the back wall of the set.

Because elements of the design were in place early during the rehearsal season, actors had the advantage of working with it long before the curtain goes up. And then it’s all about the play.

The Shadow Box talks about death and dying as not a scary thing, Boyce told The Guide last month.

“It asks ‘what’s your life about?’ Not ‘what’s your death about?’ It’s about living in the now and experiencing relationships in the now. It asks the question ‘who are you? What makes you? What makes a person a person?’”

The stage is not what people go to a show to see, says Nicoll.

“The design is not about the set, it’s about the acting. The set creates an ambience, a nuance, to enhance the actors’ performance.”

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